Jul 112017

When I was a law student in Germany I mostly stayed put in Germany so I could experience a German life.  But I did take a few trips, including this one to Poland.  Originally written October 14, 2005.

I’d forgotten how nice night trains can be. I used to take them regularly, especially as part of my marathon post-graduation 6-week trip through Europe in 1996. On that trip I think I took about 14 night trains within a month. (Actually, it was probably more like 15 if we include the Rome fiasco… plus there were also the night boats between Sweden and Finland.) My thinking always was, you have to sleep and you have to travel, so why not do both at the same time? Plus the couchettes cost no more than a hostel bed, and sleeping on the train saved me the trouble of having to find alternate lodging. In any case, this thinking is why I opted to take a night train to Poland for this trip instead of other means.

Shortly before nine in the morning the train pulled into the Central Station in Warsaw. Immediately it reminded me of the Prague train station I experienced when I visited there in 1995: cavernous, with straight, rigid geometry and smooth, faux-marble concrete surfaces everywhere. Tucked in between columns and staircases were lots of kiosks, the kind that proliferated in Eastern Bloc countries. While perhaps as recently as 20 years earlier they were probably minimally stocked, today they are stuffed with all sorts of modern consumables.

Two levels upstairs from where the trains arrive is the huge main hall, which itself showed signs of both Warsaw’s past and present. For instance, there were several ATMs, but the one I used squeaked… There was also a new, modern “Relay” news shop, where I bought a Wired magazine (for too much money) so I could break my large bills from the ATM. The woman at the tourist information booth said my tram would cost 2.40, and I’d read somewhere that they wouldn’t take large bills.

I only had three hours to spend in Warsaw before catching my next train. I figured I’d do a nice loop, walking to the Jewish cemetery, then to the old town, then on to my train. What I hadn’t realized was just how huge Warsaw is. The map in my guide book that made it look like a compact place must have been on a far smaller scale than I’d realized. Tiny streets on the map turned out to be four-lane affairs. In fact, it took me a half hour alone to figure out how to cross them… Clearly I was going to have to curtail my plans, so instead I decided to first do a dry run to find the hotel I’d need when I passed through town again on my return.  And it was a good thing I did this, as the hotel completely blended in to the neighborhood. There was no sign, and the door was set off from the street and behind another building. Still, it wasn’t far from the station and wouldn’t be too hard to find again since it was the only one with a three-story tall statue of Wallace and Grommit in front of it.

But before I got that far, after I emerged from the station I was stopped in my tracks by the view. Modern Warsaw is enormous, and what’s in it is on an enormous scale, including the abominable Stalinist building looming across from the train station. Among the many criticisms of Stalin one needs to include his architectural taste. This is a behemoth of a building in some perverted art deco style, like the Empire State Building but shorter, more sprawling (it has wings like tentacles), and with more gargoyles. I remember seeing a similar building in 1992 at the University of Moscow and thinking it was the ugliest building I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, my travels in the former communist countries have led me to see several more just like it.

Once away from the station, however, the architecture was a mix. Even in the center of the city, where there has been the most recent investment, there was a strange amalgamation of modern Europe and Moscow. The urban planning, with its relentlessly rectangular buildings, pedestrian setbacks, and ubiquitous kiosks was straight out of the 1960s and 70s. But then there were also the skyscrapers under construction, the newly-paved and well-marked roads, legible and omnipresent street signs, and KFCs and Pizza Huts right behind the H&M and C&A stores and next door to all the kebab shops.

After I got my bearings I walked around a little. I walked just a bit past the Stalinist monstrosity, behind a church, and to the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war. It was surrounded by a few other Jewish establishments, including a theater, restaurant, cultural center, and Kosher store in the basement of the temple. The synagogue itself wasn’t open (note: this was the day after Yom Kippur) so I walked back towards the station. On my way I bought groceries for the trip. The stores are fully stocked with the same things you can find in Germany, except with far fewer (in fact, objectively, too few) shopping carts and cashiers.

Once laden with my snacks, I found the tram. What I didn’t find, however, was how to pay for the ride. I was really embarrassed when I discovered that the driver didn’t take money, yet I had no ticket to validate. The woman at the tourist office, when she told me what tram to take and how much it cost had neglected to tell me how to actually pay for it.  So it seems I was a fare cheat, although completely unintentionally.

Fortunately it was a short trip and no fare inspectors boarded. (I got nervous when I saw the guy shilling for the Polish Red Cross, but then I realized that he wasn’t a real authority figure, and paying him was entirely optional…) Meanwhile a young man sat down next to me at some point and saw me looking at my map. I showed him where I was going to catch my next train out of the city (from the eastern train station), fully expecting the tram to take me all the way there. But before we reached it he told me to follow him off the train and he’d walk me to it through the side streets. Despite the fact that there was no common vocabulary between us, this all got communicated smoothly. And I’m glad it did, because I’m not sure I would have found the train station otherwise.

Once there my train soon came along, on time, and I boarded. It was really crowded, but I squished into a compartment with seven other people. However, I soon found out that it was crowded because most people had gotten on at the Central station. Apparently I didn’t need to go to this other station after all…

Two young men in my compartment spoke English, but they mostly stood in the hall so we didn’t converse much. One other older man seemed eager to make contact though, so we talked a little. The best common language, it turned out, was not English or German, but Russian. I’m really glad I learned it; it’s come in handy so many times. If only I could actually remember any of it though…

In our conversation it did become clear that I come from Boston but used to live in New Jersey, and that he has relatives in Edmonton, Canada. I’m not entirely sure exactly what was said to get this across, but does it really matter?

But in a way, the question about where I’m from is what explains the rest of this journey, as continued in the next post.

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